Five Things You Always Wanted to Know About "The Bridge" But Were Afraid to Ask

1 - You adapted this novel from a short story. What were you thinking?

A good idea is hard to find, right? So when you come up with something that has legs, you need to corral that sucker and milk it for all it’s worth. I had written a story about a cult run by an evil mastermind called The Father, who engineers females that are part AI, part human. These are called Mades. The cruel and unusual idea behind it is that once he gets enough Mades, all fully compliant instead of snakes-in-the-grass like that little bitch Eve, the Father and his other evil dudes will be able to get back into Paradise. One of the Mades escapes thanks to a witch called Narn, but her twin sister dies in the process. The witch raises the Made in her remote lair and eventually sends her to college where she joins a horror reading series, and is a big hit due to her tales of cult atrocities. Her trauma porn, although a betrayal of her sister and her guardian Narn, gives the Made a kind of power, a power that she needs if she’s going to survive. The story worked its way into my head and heart and I wanted to do more with it. So I decided to expand on it and turn it into a novel, kind of like letting out the hem on a pair of vintage rose-pink Levis. What could be so hard?

But as anyone who’s ever let out a pair of thrift-store jeans knows, it’s fraught. There’s that grimy hemline that no amount of scrubbing or ironing flat can fully erase. The underside is less faded than the rest, so once you let it out, you’ve got this unflattering stripe of dark matter at the bottom that makes you look like a sad Times Square tweaker. Bottom line, those flares were cut to size and any letting out is just going to make them look like something they’re not.

My advice for anyone thinking about expanding a short story into a novel, is to think again.

My advice for anyone thinking about expanding a short story into a novel, is to think again. It’s a great option, but only if you’re willing to put in at least as much work as you would if you started afresh. You’re constantly bumping up against elements, characters, settings, and even names, that worked in the story but don’t in the novel. My Made, Dani ,outgrew her name, so I changed it to Meera and gave Dani to another character. In the original story, the sidekick was her writing instructor,  but in the novel he was another Made, a male, with his own history, his own agenda—and he surprised me. In the story, the witch was a lone actor, but in looking into what she wasn’t telling me, I found out her secret care—two other sisters lurking in the shadows, twining the threads of time and fate. I was knee deep in loose ends and I can’t tell you how many times I just felt like giving those rufescent flares back to Stepney Green where they came from and heading to the mall.

It was only when I cut the threads to the short story itself, and relegated it to the status of an idea I could play with rather than a novel in miniature, that I felt free to write the novel as it was meant to be. There is no such thing as a novel in miniature, in my experience, any more than there is a supersized story. This had to be a brand-new pair of pants sewn with old cloth. 

2 - You wrote in first person for the first time (in a long form work). What possessed you?

I’d written the original short story in close third person, my go-to narrative viewpoint. I admire writers who can sustain first person but I’m generally more comfortable hopping from shoulder to shoulder with my POV characters like the sentient ravens in The Bridge. But as the novel writing progressed that viewpoint was blocking me from getting all up the guts of nineteen-year-old Meera’s character. She kept turning away from me in other words, so swiftly that by the time she saw something I should have seen, it was gone.

And there was the voice. Nineteen is the year of standing on the bridge; we’re in between everything at that age. It’s when secrets are backed up behind us, and we’re trying to work out which ones we’re going to let through to the other side, to adulthood, and which to leave behind. I could hop from shoulder to shoulder all I wanted, but all I was getting was a kind of filtered Heathers-style college-daze voice that wasn’t mine and I was pretty sure wasn’t hers. Worse, the flashback sections, extended in the novel, set in the Blood Temple cult and then in the grim witches’ hut where she was raised sounded somewhere between Hans Christian Anderson and Mr Rogers, and didn’t capture the true lurking horror. I wrote and rewrote and somewhere along the line, I lost my girl. As the writer Jo Anderton put it, multiple rewrites can edit your characters right off the page.

I almost gave up (again) at that point. But Meera was already in mad residence up there in the attic, I just had to find her again without burning down the house like in Jane Eyre. So instead of standing on the landing trying to sweet talk her down, I started up that ladder myself. I started thinking and writing about my own wounds, about pacing the attic rooms of my own pain, my own past—and by the time I ascended, the transition to first person was complete, and I was able to type the words, “In my dreams it was Kai the guilty survivor instead of me.” But by the time I’d worked this all out I had already written 1/2 of the novel in third person, so it was a matter of starting again.

The takeaway here is that voice is everything, and what is raw and convincing in a short story can become diluted and false when stretched in a novel. But the upside is that if you take care with those pants, hippy-chick, they’ll become you.

3 - You wrote the novel in two different geographical and temporal frames. Seriously?

The short story was set in the present, in an alternative north-eastern USA called Upper Slant, and began, as the novel does, in the first week of college when the main character is too sick to go to class. I reference her South Rim (alternative Antipodes) past when she steps onto the bridge to make her first call home to Narn, the witch who raises her. But in the novel I had to do more than reference it, I had to make that past the superstructure for the present and the future. I didn’t want to do that in flashback—there was too much of it and it refused to be ghettoized parenthetically. Half the novel took place in the past, a past that was still unfolding in the present as Meera tries to bridge the two. So I decided to embrace the idea of writing two novels in one. Cue mad writer in the attic.

As the writer Jo Anderton put it, multiple rewrites can edit your characters right off the page.

I wrote a section of each chapter set in a South Rim past, but in the present tense. Another section in Upper Slant present, but written in the past tense. I knew transition between the present in past tense and the past in present tense was everything. And that was the hard part. Point being that Meera had to remember the past in order to imagine an alternative future. And vice versa.

This next-level déjà vu proved hard to keep track of and I suck at graphs and tables. I wanted to show the past, present and future as permeable—like Coleridge’s dreams where you pluck a strange and beautiful flower and wake up with it in your hand. If Meera stumbled across something in her present, that element was the set up for the next scene I brought in from the past. If there was a scene from the past that ended on a cliff, that cliff was where I returned to in the present, but always careful that both past and present unfolded linearly. Even with my best efforts, fraught with pandemic anxiety, there was juggling at the end. Covid basically put everything on ice for about eight months but then we had to rush the final edits through to meet the release schedule. There was a lot of crawling around on the cutting room floor looking for rose-pink scraps of various hues and shapes. 

4 - You’re one of three sisters. There are three sisters in "The Bridge." Um, is this a memoir?

So while there is a part of my character in Narn, Tiff and Mag (the three sisters in the novel) and their relationship is definitely informed by sibling dynamics—the betrayals large and small, the protectiveness, the secrets and shared histories and shames—there is none of my actual sisters in any of the characters. The sister element in The Bridge is actually an homage to two things.

1 - The trope of the benevolent/malevolent female trinity is one I’ve always wanted to use in my fiction. The Norns, Shakespeare’s weird trio, the Furies, the Graces and Valkyries have fascinated me forever and The Bridge retraces the journey of this eternal/infernal formation from the darkness to the light and back again. It was in the retelling and rehashing of this myth, hacking and slashing at it and sewing it back together again that I finally was able to came up with my own story—of the ones who got away.

2 - As far as the twins go, that was closer to home because I had a best friend through school who died a bad death at nineteen. She was my one who got away. She was tall and beautiful and graceful and popular, like Kai. I was none of those things, like Meera. And bizarrely, people would confuse us. We dressed the same, walked and talked the same, I guess. We got asked if we were sisters, and occasionally even twins. We were peas in a pod even if one of those peas was ripe and green and the other was stunted and bitter. I never knew what she saw in me—like Meera when the ethereal Kai ‘chooses’ her—beyond an intimation that we were conjoined at some level of predestination, beyond time and place. The Bridge tells that story too.

5 - Twins, ravens and witches, oh my! Neurological tinkering, cults, sentient code—is there any tired old horror or SF trope you don’t drag out of the trunk? You teach weird fiction and your work is often labelled weird, so what’s weird about "The Bridge"?

Labels are not my jam, to be honest. The Bridge is as much dark fantasy as it is horror, science fiction or Gothic, and weird in parts, but also in parts a story about growing up and working out who you are. It’s unclassifiable, so there’s that. The emotional logic is partly that of love as predestination. The characters are uncertain and afflicted. Time is out of joint. It is set in a world that is ours but not. Binary distinctions are pretty much thrown out the broken window—male and female, alive and dead, AI and human, normal and abnormal—and I hope that there is a weird comfort to be had in all that.

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JS Breukelaar

Column by JS Breukelaar

J.S. Breukelaar is the Shirley Jackson Award nominated author of Collision: Stories, and a finalist for the Aurealis, Ladies of Horror Fiction (LOHF), and Australian Shadows Awards. Her previous novels are Aletheia (an Aurealis Award nominee), and American Monster (Wonderland Award Finalist). She has published stories, poems and essays in publications such as Black Static, Gamut, Unnerving, Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, Lamplight, Juked, and others including Women Writing the Weird, Tiny Nightmares and Years Best Horror and Fantasy, 2019. Her new novel, The Bridge, will be released in early 2021, as well as Turning of the Seasons, a collaborative flash fiction collection with Sebastien Doubinsky. A columnist and regular instructor of Weird Writing at LitReactor.com, she has a PhD in Creative Writing and Film studies and lives in Sydney, Australia where she teaches at the University of Western Sydney, and in the University of Sydney extension programs. You can also find her at www.thelivingsuitcase.com and twitter.com/jsbreukelaar.

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